Sunday, March 19, 2017

The cinema (and betrayal) of Somaratne Dissanayake

When I first met Lester James Peries some years ago, I was requested by a teacher to ask him a question. The question had nothing to do with Lester. Or his work. Or for that matter his wife's. Instead, it had to do with the state of a film genre that was, in this teacher’s opinion, witnessing a comeback. I couldn’t really share his optimism, but went on nevertheless and asked the question from the master himself: “Do you, as an observer of contemporary Sri Lankan cinema, think that our children’s films do ample justice to children?” I predicted the answer and I was not wrong: “No.”

Now questions of this sort tend to beg more questions, so soon enough I quoted the one name that had, at least back then, been firmly associated with our children’s cinema: Somaratne Dissanayake. When I quoted his name, Lester became surprised. He answered by bluntly making a point I’d been oblivious to until then: “He doesn’t make children’s films. He makes films with children in them.” Back then I honestly thought he was criticising him, but later I realised that he was not: he was merely offering comment. He had the credentials to do that, after all.

I first watched Suriya Arana, I remember, because of its visuals. The mise en scène mattered, for obvious reasons. I was, after all, watching a film that paired a young Veddha with a young Buddhist monk, the kind of story no 15-year-old could resist. Everything else came second, and so during the first half I was left with only one feeling: that here was a film about children not ashamed of pandering to a child’s sensibilities, even in a world inhabited by cruel, disturbed adults.

Then it all went downhill.

Malinda Seneviratne, writing on Suriya Arana many, many years ago, recounted an experience he had with his daughter:“Barely 20 minutes into the film, my little daughter burst into tears and voiced her opinion on the film: ‘Eeeya, meka ketha kathavak, mata ba balanna.’ The opinion of a three-year-old critic would not in any way be the final word on a film. I could not help thinking that if the ketha was replaced by boru which means the same thing in assessing art outside of that which is supposed to evoke the ‘jugupsa rasa’, she would have been absolutely spot on.”

What Malinda’s daughter felt, I too felt as a child, and I can remember where exactly: the sequence in which the monk (played by Jayaratne Manoratne) gets his head axed (literally) by a paranoid village idiot (whose fear of the monk, I might add, is owing to the hatred towards him inculcated by the Veddha, played by Jackson Anthony). I also remember thinking that this was precisely the point which made me feel betrayed in Somaratne’s other films. But then, that has much to do with Somaratne Dissanayake as it does with his films.

Because I am not a film critic, I don’t possess enough credentials to comment on, let alone critique, the (de)merits of Somaratne’s work. I believe, however, that his conception of the (children’s) cinema deserves more than a cursory sketch. We’d be doing both him and his films a disservice otherwise.

The artiste’s fascination with children was and is rooted in their innocence and penchant to swerve into polar opposites: it is in a child’s universe, after all, that good and bad remain irreconcilable and starkly so. In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky gets his protagonist Alyosha to refer to the children he befriends as “my little doves”. Given their tendency to veer off into those same polar opposites, I suppose one can equally well refer to them as doves or fiends, depending on the situation. This bifurcation of children into innocence and badness, therefore, defines how they have been represented by artistes, film directors (here and elsewhere) included.

Somaratne Dissanayake is at his best when extracting honest performances from his (child) actors. We feel in his films that adults are, at best, helpless and dispensable. The children, on the other hand, possess agency. Because of that, he tends to turn them into messengers and gets them to spout out whatever moral the story is preaching to us. Coupled with his tendency to preach the same issues again and again, this means that he views them through the lens of his ideology. Whether or not you agree with him here, that is what constitutes his signature.

Saroja, his debut, is his most perfectly conceived film on this count. He manages in it to depict a politically sensitive theme like a homily. He preaches, but reminds us that we are watching a work of fiction and nothing more. Punchi Suranganavi, in contrast, does away with that altogether and gives us more than a homily: he ends up manipulating reality and preaching to the choir. If Punchi Suranganavi portends what Somaratne Dissanayake became, then Saroja represents what he should have become. Owing to his inability to distinguish between moralising on and manipulating reality, his later films hence suffer in quality.

Forget that, though. Think about the man’s strength: extracting honest performances from children. Because he’s so deft at it, he transforms his child actors not into individuals, but into types, and still gets away with it.

The girls in Saroja could have represented the “Sinhala-ness” and “Tamil-ness” of the ethnic conflict, while Punchi Suranganavi delved into both class and ethnicity so obviously that it turned out to be an inversion of that conflict: the rich, spoilt, and refined Sinhala boy, virtually shell-shocked and insane, has to be resuscitated by a sane, poor, and tough Tamil girl. Peace-lovers here at the time couldn’t have asked for a better “piece” of art.

In later years, however, Somaratne was perceived as subscribing to the ideology of the shell-shocked Sinhalese, which is probably why he abandoned the ethnic conflict and resorted to his other big concern: class. In this he might have been echoing Regi Siriwardena’s quip: "Children, like dogs, develop their sense of class differences very early.” While I do believe that this departure helped him win a market for his films, I also believe that of his films that opted for this theme, only one can be singled out for praise. Siri Raja Siri.

With Siri Raja Siri, Somaratne proved that he could, if he tried hard enough, make a decent enough children’s film. As with Saroja and everything else that followed it, it portrayed its children as types. Unlike Saroja, though, those types didn’t symbolise the overtly political: they symbolised the dualities that children subscribe to, echoing our conception of them as good, bad, redeemable, or beyond redemption. There is a reason for this, of course: I remember reading somewhere that Siri Raja Siri reflected Somaratne’s own childhood, more than his other work. Whether or not this is true, the film certainly remains, after all this time, his most personal.

The story itself compels comment. Sirimal, the protagonist who wins a Grade Five scholarship to a popular school, has to adjust to life in the city. From the first sequence of him in his new classroom, the director makes the gulf between him and them obvious: the teacher asks each student to get up and perform an item, and while his classmates rap, sing, dance, and deliver skits, Sirimal chooses to remember his village, to their amusement. They can only laugh, and he can only be confused.

The villain is big, burly, and (worse) privileged (reflecting the fat, burly antagonist in the popular cinema). He bullies his chauffeur, speaks frankly with his teachers, and makes enemies with our hero. There are sequences when he appears redeemable, but no: just as our hero tries to make his peace with him, and just as he becomes forgivable, he reverts to his former, despicable character and becomes the overbearing busybody he is. When he appears in front of the Principal (Sanath Gunathilake) after a muddy tussle with Sirimal, for instance, he persistently offers to buy the other a new uniform. A few scenes later, though, he’s back to calling him a “gona” with no qualms.

In the meantime, one thing leads to another, Sirimal is selected to play the King in a school play, ends up having to act out the condemned servant (the bully steals his costume, out of spite), and in a twist as remarkable as it is predictable, plays him so well (since he continues to cry loudly at losing his original part) that he clinches the award for Best Actor.

The very next sequence, however, has him play the King in the village. It ends with Sirimal looking at his friends, neither smiling nor crying. Because Somaratne’s world consists of good and bad only barely reconcilable with each other, he doesn’t give us a happy ending, only an uncertain, unresolved one, with the village and the city remaining as unbridgeable as they always was.

Sadly enough, the Somaratne Dissanayake who emerged out of Siri Raja Siri wasn’t the director we wanted. Siri Parakum, for instance, plays around with history, nice visuals, and great acting, but playing around with history, nice visuals, and great acting can’t salvage an otherwise deficient film. After the first hour, Siri Parakum became a bore, dragging on endlessly with sequences of its hero “discovering” things in the village that could have been edited better.

And now, the man who gave us Saroja, Punchi Suranganavi, Suriya Arana, Samanala Thatu, Siri Raja Siri, the lacklustre Bindu, and the even more lacklustre Siri Parakum, has given us Sarigama.

In a televised interview, a prominent commentator tells us that it reminded him of the Von Trapp Family biography. Whether or not it reminded him of the musical, we do not know. He praises it, predictably, and implies that it is a film for all families. Now I can’t contend with a man like that, but I do believe that praising a deplorable story, even with the kind of authority he possesses, will not be enough to salvage it.

In a context where critics are unable to call a spade a spade and tend to balloon the more savoury aspects to a work of art while ignoring its deficiencies, it shouldn’t be surprising that people are praising Sarigama. Not that it’s completely imitative, of course: Rohana Weerasinghe’s music doesn’t come close to the Rodgers and Hammerstein melodies (not that it should), Pooja Umayashankar is thankfully not the Maria of Julie Andrews (nor does she try to be), and Ashan Dias does a pretty good job at depicting a complex, emotionally sensitive widower.

Beyond this, however, I felt that Sarigama wasn’t the sort of work that Somaratne should have churned out. The visuals were stunning and the dialogues not that bad, but I asked myself “Does it matter?” as I waded through the story. One source tells me that the film is running well and another tells me that it is not. We can never be sure, but then ticket-sales don’t constitute the aesthetic merit of a film. On that count, Sarigama gives the impression of being made by a languid artiste, someone who could have tried but could only come up with an almost frame-to-frame adaptation of a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. Not a good omen.

So with all these reflections, where can I end?

Somaratne came to us in a less gentle time, when a war was being fought and childhood was being fragmented owing to its ethnic slant. He proved in Saroja that he could turn this to his advantage and preach to us. He proved in Punchi Suranganavi that he could achieve the same outcome by manipulating reality. He proved then in Siri Raja Siri that he could direct a near-perfect children’s film without cashing in on the overtly political. Siri Parakum was a disappointment, as were Bindu and (to an extent) Samanala Thatu before it, but with Sarigama, I feel that he’s done his best to outlast himself. Sad.

But then directors are a curious lot. They give us their best work for some years and then teeter off so much that what they give us later on can only be summed up as a betrayal. Has Somaratne Dissanayake betrayed us, going by this? I sincerely think not. I believe, however, that his work has deteriorated, languished, and suffered in quality. I don’t blame him personally, but I do blame him for his misconception of the genre he’s working in. Will he survive? Only time will tell.

Written for: Ceylon Today LITE, March 19 2017